Under the new conditions (i.e., of socialism) Individualism will be far freer, finer, and far more intensified than it is now. I am not talking of the great imaginatively-realised individualism of [the great poets.] but of the great actual Individualism latent and potential in mankind generally. Oscar Wilde, The Soul of Man Under Socialism(1891)
When one of [Christ’s] followers asked leave to go and bury his father, “let the dead bury the dead” was his terrible answer. He would allow no claim whatsoever to be made on personality…he who would lead a Christ-like life is he who is perfectly and absolutely himself. He may be a great poet, or a great man of science; or a young student at a University, or one who watches sheep upon a moor; or a maker of dramas, like Shakespeare, or a thinker about God, like Spinoza; or a child who plays in a garden, or a fisherman who throws his nets into the sea. It does not matter what he is as long as he realizes the perfection of the soul that is within him….There is no one type for man. There are as many perfections as there are imperfect men. And while to the claims of charity a man may yield and yet be free, to the claims of conformity no man may yield and remain free at all. Ibid
As liberals are busy portraying themselves as the good guys, pro-immigrant, defenders of the rights of Muslims and Hispanics, etc., perhaps it is time, at last, to ask how that can be done by those who will not be “others” themselves? The “neutral/neutered” white liberal identifying with the rights of different, minority others, but unable and having no time to answer Who Am I? has “de-evolved,” in the historical abandonment, one-by-one, of the bases of culture, including in-place, intergenerational family, religion, and stable, mutually dependent, community that educates its young according to its own, sometimes oppressively narrow, values. It has replaced these human elements with “mind-broadening” knowledge from TV, NPR, Internet and qualified print sources of information, just as my mother replaced her grandmother’s knowledge of childrearing with a paperback by Dr. Spock. This exchange has made liberals dangerous free-floaters above the lived terrain of human identity that they are obsessed with. In my suburban 1950’s mother’s case, being solely responsible for most of the early parenting, driven by the fear of “not knowing” something crucial that could lead to her making some horrible mistake, she could relax under Spock’s certified (best-seller) expertise. Her confidence placed in Spock and in modernism generally, she never imagined missing the wisdom of the old women, the “uncertified” knowing of a community among whom, importantly, she would not have been left alone with such fraught decisions.
If childrearing were only a matter of the right information, we’d be all set with the right book or theory – LaMaze, LaLeche, the Family Bed, etc. – for guidance. What we elders can now realize is parenting has less to do with being right than with being, in oneself, as safe, trusting, open and confident in one’s essential goodness, as one senses intuitively it is best for the child to be. Such a confidence is impossible in the fragmented, alienating, secularized modern social context, with its substitution of community by absolute faith in progress, to which we are obedient. The cost of this exchange, of “soul-information,” which depends upon relationships in family and face-to-face community, for expert information, is not apparent inside liberal reality, but it makes possible what everyone else can see – and consequently hates – about liberals. The displacement of home-based knowledge, by expert, media-transmitted “facts” coming down from science and academic establishments allows the liberals’ reflexive and self-justifying passions for the rights of victimized minorities and public schooling, while, not skipping a beat, making sure their own children attend the “better,” whiter, reliably bourgeois suburban schools.
This unconscious classism, entirely at odds with the liberal equality agenda has its source in the erasure of indigenousness, of the individual’s “right” as a human being to have confidence in her essential, non-conforming, goodness/saneness, and thus having no choice but to trust in the insane neoliberal order instead.
The return to local living-in-place, besides being a way of “contracting” our way of life in the interest of sustainability, is also a path, because of its restrictive “parochialism,” to reclaiming each person’s non-conforming “otherness,” one’s difference, uniqueness, specific quirky character with all its “warts” and pungent flavors born of long-time vintaging and togetherness in one place. Parochialism is not a feel-good word like “local,” or “roots;” it denotes ‘narrow-minded,’ ‘unsophisticated,’ ‘illiberal;’ to the liberal mind it connotes ‘backward,’ still waving “Old Glory down at the courthouse,” etc. But – and possibly for that reason – embracing its narrowness could bring dangerously airborne liberals down-to-earth, capable of being, instead of defensively good, bravely, authentically, imperfectly knowledgeable and confidently self-knowing human beings. Consider for a moment, how difficult it is for real parochialism to exist in our time of expanding “broadmindedness” resulting from 24-7 mass media propagandizing – all Americans united in the shared celebrity world, the shared commercial world of Walmart, Dunkin Donuts, the shared news world of MSDNC, and in the virtual friendings of social media. If you think about it, a concerted effort to re-parochialize our lives; i.e., to take them back, might be the only way to escape the iron net of banality.
Though back in spring 2002, Orin and I conceived of the establishment of our coffeeshop business as a community-builder, it was as much a way to free ourselves, to place our existences – Orin’s and mine – upon an independent footing in relation to our social context in provincial Utica. No longer fitting in the liberal world, we needed to have a way to fit (or to be able to imagine fitting) the emerging “square pegs” of our strengthening “individualist” souls into the “round” social space of our local corner of the neoliberal bourgeois world. We had been inspired not only by our own empty-nest mid-life crisis, but also by reading about “the soul of the city” in work by archetypal psychologist James Hillman, and learning, in E.P. Thompson’s Witness Against the Beast, that in William Blake’s London, some tradesmen and artisans, compared to their more affluent neighbors, “had a degree of occupational independence” that afforded them greater freedom to challenge the hegemonic “Urizen” of their time.
Looking back on it, I see ever more clearly the prescience of our vision as much in terms of the independence it granted us to strengthen our individual creative souls as to build community, although the public acknowledgment we receive is almost entirely about the latter. Very recently, a customer who has decided to run for office on the city council, representing the ward in which our Cafe is located, in her public announcement of her candidacy, praised our Cafe for all it has meant to her in choosing to stay in Utica! Good may well come from the Trump-awakened liberal class that chooses to enter politics at the local level. What she and others in the liberal mainstream do not know is that these Cafe owners’ dedicated altruism on behalf of community rests mainly on the fierce desire in our souls to maintain our “individualities” against erasure in the conforming neoliberal context. That is, even if our business profits provided more assurance of survival than they do, we believe the (selfish) struggle to remain true to that inner-most “perfection” is the more significant, and more radical motive for the sacrificial work of rebuilding small-scale local economy in our city ravaged by the global free-market.
Moreover, and here I undoubtedly depart from Wilde, for the “great actual Individualism latent and potential in humankind” to be realized, more than Socialism now is needed. We need conscious efforts by individuals to conserve the social bonds of affection in local, place-based, often devastated communities, including the micro-communities of marriages and extended families. Individuality is not achieved in social transcendence, but inside real, existing bonds of the heart. These narrow confines are the human pre-condition – however mixed and antagonistic their influence – for each individualizing life. Individuality demands, instead of freedom to do whatever I want, surrender to a process, we can call it growing up, by which the individual becomes capable of integrating her relationships both to her inner being and to the outer community. When carried through, and not bypassed (neoliberal modernity offers a full menu of detours around the soul) the process allows one’s love for community and family to be realized on one’s own terms, with authority now located in oneself and one’s capacity for independent thought, rather than in the family’s or community’s conscious or unconscious demands for conformity.
Christ saying “let the dead bury the dead,” is not a rejection of the obligations of community; it is the individual insisting upon his own terms in relation to his community that wants to impose upon him its orthodoxies, a radical loving that risks revealing to the community its own unconsciously held dogmas. While I cannot say such initiated individuality is impossible for those who, in the neoliberal way, temporize their relationships to people and places, most people will not seek it who have accepted the favors of bourgeois neoliberalism – i.e, whose identity is based in career, material attainments, and conventionally certified knowledge – and thereby have agreed to bypass the difficult initiation process in favor of temporality and its rewards. In this way, both the soul’s power to enlarge the world via imagination and the embodied relationships that root individuals in communities, are lost. In bypassing the rigorous and painful self-scrutiny of self-knowledge, we are, as Robert Bly rightly called us, a society of siblings, stuck in the not-inevitable, but hopeless mire of squabbling fatuousness that is neoliberal society.
Thus both the Social (relational) and the Individualizing human projects are held in check by the collective denial of the true, deep, individual basis of freedom, a fact obscured by secular liberalism’s focus on identity politics and defending the rights of subordinated groups. Not only minorities, working people and the poor, the incarcerated, LGBTQ, and women, poor women in particular, suffer under authoritarianism. The individuality in every person suffers and in a sense, suffers more exquisitely under liberalism’s hidden authoritarian assumption which holds there’s no such reality as that fundamental other, “the soul.” The suffering of individuality is of a different kind than that of minorities. Each person “volunteers” for the job of oppressing the unique individual he/she is, even while having been raised on the promise of and speaking the words of individual freedom. Under neoliberalism, no “being” is more ruthlessly cracked down upon than that which would be manifested in the creative, original expression unique to each individual. In their embeddedness with capitalism, liberals treat as irrelevant the authentic (and far more threatening to authority) peculiar, queer, abrasive whole the individual would be and behave as, in the dreamed-of better (anarchist) world.
Contrary to popular notions, individuality is something for which we are unprepared and in some ways cannot recognize when we run across it! For me, this peculiar non-conforming “whole” is better exemplified in some of the truly odd “characters” among our Cafe customers – people who never left Utica and have been shaped/warped by lives lived indigenously here – than by the more cosmopolitan and reliably broadminded people I know. These people who’ve been left alone to become peculiar, who’ve retained their unrefined speech, their East-Utica dialects, wearing on their sleeves their alternatively-informed but intensely felt opinions, could be interesting characters in J.C. Powys or Tolstoyian novels, mainly working class and thoroughly non-banal. Of course, these hometown eccentrics will never be candidates for anarchism, their imaginations limited by TV and talk shows, and by their overall obedience to the existing order. They are radical only in this one way, but that way isn’t nothing!
Admittedly, these colorful characters developed in a context made of face-to-face, and until recently, mostly stable relationships that often rested on “gender inequality” and parochial prejudices. Neo-parochialism is not a return to the bad old days! Its premise is that individuality must have the “cauldron” of up-close human life and relationships, those limiting irritating factors that chafe and are rebelled against by the brilliant, the creative, the square pegs of all types. The anarchist ideal is more than rebellion; it requires living in place and within bonds of affection, which in turn, means re-learning traditions of kindness, generosity, repentance, forgiveness, etc., such that freedom’s “end” is love, and not freedom to choose between iphones and androids.
This essay began in a conversation Orin and I had in which we asked ourselves how much earlier would we have embraced – and not resisted – our “square-peg” creative vocations had we known about anarchism when we were young. This was not a victim’s lament regretting those lost chances. The answer could be, it was exactly the parochialism of upstate New York, as well as the unconsciousness, selfishness, narcissism, and unfinished initiations of our well-meaning parents we can blame for the struggle we’re still in to reclaim the “perfection of our souls.” Another way of looking at it is the struggle is what anarchism is, and it should not be bypassed if we are to defend the humanity that is so threatened now.